“Sacraments of Healing”
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
19th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 21B) - September 30, 2018
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner's soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
This text is the basis for two important (but often under-appreciated) sacraments: Holy Unction (a.k.a. anointing) and Reconciliation of a Penitent (a.k.a. private confession)
1. Unction: “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.”
The church’s ministry of healing is connected directly to Jesus’ ministry of healing. He traveled around the countryside healing the sick, and sent his apostles out to do the same.
In the liturgy I use for visiting the sick at home or in hospitals or nursing homes, I often include an introduction to unction from Enriching our Worship 2, authorized by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2000 (not in the Book of Common Prayer).
“Holy Scripture teaches us that Jesus healed many who were sick as a sign of the reign of God come near, and sent the disciples to continue this work of healing through prayer in his name, that the afflicted might be raised up and their sins forgiven, bringing them to eternal salvation. By laying hands upon the sick and anointing them, the disciples witnessed to the marvelous power and presence of God. Pray that as we follow their example, we may experience Christ’s unfailing love” (EOW2, 52).
The Church follows Jesus in caring especially for the sick because sickness is a symptom of “the sin of the world.” It’s one of the things that Jesus came to “take away” (as we say in the Agnus Dei prayer: “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world”). In the coming Kingdom of God, there will be no more sin or death and no more illness or pain. So Jesus showed us the power of God’s Kingdom breaking into this world by healing the sick.
We too pray for God to bring healing here and now, because God can. It doesn’t always work out that way, of course. We are still mortal and we will all still die. But God’s mercy continues for us and the Church works hard not to forget the sick and others who might inconvenience us. That’s the Kingdom of God come near too.
As an important aside, this scripture begins by addressing the sick person. “They should call for the elders of the church.” The elders may be understood as the older, faithful members of the congregation, but is also the word used in the New Testament to describe pastors and priests. So if you or a loved one are sick or visiting the hospital, please call me. I’m not too busy to see you. I just need to know what’s going on so I can come visit. I’d rather drop other things to visit sick parishioners than find out later that you were sick and I didn’t see you because I didn’t know.
(And I understand forgetting to call a priest when you’re sick. I’ve done it. But once it gets serious enough for you to go to the ER or get admitted to a hospital, please let me or someone from the church know.)
Finally, the healing offered in this sacrament is more than just physical. The Book of Common Prayer describes this sacrament as “the rite of anointing the sick with oil, or the laying on of hands, by which God’s grace is given for the healing of spirit, mind, and body” (BCP, 861). It is especially beneficial for people who are physically sick, but can also address other spiritual or mental concerns.
That’s why we offer anointing not only to people who sick at home or in the hospital, but also to anyone who comes to our Wednesday evening service of public healing at 6:00. So whether you are dealing with some physical pain, or just had a frightening talk with a doctor, or are mad at your spouse, or are hurting in any other way imaginable, the Wednesday night service is there for you to receive that healing grace of anointing and prayer.
2. Reconciliation: “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”
The Book of Common Prayer describes Reconciliation of a Penitent as “the rite in which those who repent of their sins may confess them to God in the presence of a priest, and receive the assurance of pardon and the grace of absolution” (BCP, 861).
A penitent is anyone who recognizes that they have sinned (done something wrong) and feel sorry about it. The only prerequisite for the sacrament of reconciliation is enough self-awareness and humility to feel bad about messing something up.
God hears the confession and the priest is there for emotional, moral, and spiritual support. The priest’s primary role is to “assure” you that you are pardoned. We’re there to speak the truth about God’s mercy and forgiveness. Priests are there to remind us that God is good and God’s love endures forever (cf. Psalm 118:1).
Reconciliation is important for coming to terms with our own worst moments, thoughts, and fears. The beauty of this sacrament is the assurance that we have forgiveness even when we don’t think we deserve it.
To be clear, reconciliation is not “cheap grace”. In cases of serious sins, confessors are not supposed to declare God’s absolution unless the person demonstrates contrition concretely. You have to be willing to accept the consequences for your sin in this life, even if it’s true that God forgives you for it now and in eternity. So a murderer can and should be forgiven by God and the Church, but will also do time in prison and seek psychological help. A sex offender can and should be forgiven by God and the Church, but should also do time in prison and not be allowed to work in children’s and youth ministries or around other vulnerable populations.
That is all to say that, regardless of how serious or trite you think your sins are, the sacrament of reconciliation is an opportunity for you to get them off your chest and rest in the certainty of God’s grace. It is a sacrament of honesty with yourself and recognition of God’s mercy. God’s goodness doesn’t come to us when we confess. God is always good. But we receive God’s goodness, forgiveness, and love when we unburden ourselves of the wrongs we have committed or the things we have left undone.
A lot of the power of reconciliation comes from the confessor (usually a priest) telling you that you are forgiven and that God loves you. There is power in hearing a person say, “May God in his love enlighten your heart, that you may remember in truth all your sins and his unfailing mercy. Amen” (BCP, 449). And later, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered himself to be sacrificed for us to the Father, and who conferred power on his Church to forgive sins, absolve you through my ministry by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and restore you in the perfect peace of the Church. Amen” (BCP, 450).
These two rites, unction and reconciliation, are sacraments of healing. These are ways God has given us to come into closer contact with the saving and healing power of Jesus, mediated by human hands and bodies. Thanks be to God for giving us healing grace even when we don’t feel like we deserve it. I pray that God will remind us all to turn to the Church for these sacraments of grace in our times of need. Amen.
The Episcopal Church. The Book of Common Prayer. New York: Church Publishing, 1979.
The Episcopal Church. Enriching Our Worship 2. New York: Church Publishing, 2000.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c2a5.htm.